Cancel This Election

BOB DYLAN: “Now the bricks lay on Grand Street
Where the neon madmen climb
They all fall there so perfectly
It all seems so well timed
And here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice
Oh, Mama, can this really be the end?”

THE NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL BOARD: “The race to replace Mr. Silver, in Lower Manhattan, has had unsavory twists. Although Mr. Silver’s days as a power broker are supposed to be over, his wife, his friends and a former aide managed to overpower the candidate-selection process earlier this year and maneuver a Silver apologist onto the Democratic ballot.”


The special election race for Shelly Silver’s 65th AD Assembly seat, taking place on Presidential Primary day, may be the best example of political theater of the absurd since Crown Heights Democrats failed to nominate serial crank Guillermo Philpotts (or anyone else) as their candidate for Assembly.

[For those who’ve never frequented the last night to file NYC nominating petitions, a crowd usually gathers in the lobby of 32 Broadway and starts counting down about one minute before the midnight deadline. At that point, poor Guillermo “Bill” Philpotts can usually be seen breathlessly entering the building with a pooper scooper  full of what passes for his petitions in one hand and a roll of electric tape in the other, trying to bind them in time to file. The only time when Bill’s ever made the ballot were those years when no one bothered to challenge his petitions.]

The 65th AD Democratic nomination was determined, as Democratic nominations in NY County special elections are, by a vote of the local membership of the Democratic County Committee.

Brooklynites are used to political clubs being organized predominately along Assembly District lines, and party District Leaders, who also serves as State Committee Members, representing entire Assembly Districts. But, in the other Boroughs, District Leader and State Committee Member are separate jobs (sometimes people hold both positions, but by separate election) and in some of the boroughs, District Leaders don’t represent entire districts. In Queens, the districts are divided into two parts.

In Manhattan, for purposes of Democratic Party organization, Assembly Districts are divided into two to four parts, depending upon the political convenience of whoever the current incumbent local party leaders are at the moment when the Part lines are redrawn (every ten years). The party rules don’t require the Part lines to be contiguous, nor for the Parts to be of equal size.

The existing Part lines for AD 65 were drawn in early 1993, for the District Leader elections that year, and have existed with only minor changes ever since.

After those lines had been drawn, but before they were made public, I had the good fortune to see a coded version of the final map, with titles given to four zones.

The titles were “Grand Street,” “Fratta,” “Chinatown” and “The Liberals.”

Part A was the Grand Street Co-ops, the Bialystoker Nursing Home and the Vladeck Projects (added, I assume, because of their Jewish name). This was a predominately Orthodox Jewish area, under the control of Shelly’s Harry Truman Club.

Part B was two unconnected corridors. One of them consisted of a swath of NYCHA and Mitchell-Lama developments south of Grand. The other was a swath of other developments and tenements to Grand Street’s North and West. Though the area to the south was rapidly turning Chinese, the vote was then majority Latino, with some African-Americans. The north and west area was also Latino, though Yuppifying. Attached to both areas were whatever blocks and developments still contained remnants of a once significant Italian-American community, even if the Italian population of those remnants numbered only in the dozens.  Part B was the base of John Fratta, a relatively young and ambitious remnant of Little Italy and his loyal Latino co-leader Alice Cancel, and their Lower East Side Democratic Club. Johnny and Alice were usually Silver allies, but Johnny could often be a pain in the ass force of nature, who strutted down Monroe Street like the big swinging salsiccia he thought he was.

Part D was Old Chinatown, even though the area’s Chinese population had already expanded beyond its borders. This was the home of the United Democrats of Chinatown, led in fact, if not in name, by Virginia Kee, and the District Leaders she chose (at the time including her husband). The part was relatively small, the idea being to draw a Part that could never be lost to someone non-Chinese.

Part C, was “The Liberals,” a series of disconnected areas, from parts of Lower Manhattan to parts of the East Village, that no else one wanted, which largely were in Kathryn Freed’s City Council District, and were put under the jurisdiction of her club, the Downtown Independent Democrats. At Freed’s insistence, her club got half of Southbridge Towers, which still had enough Italians to also be desired by Fratta (eventually, when Freed was gone from the Council, Fratta got the rest).

The divisions were crucial because each club controlled almost all the County Committee members in its Part, but the Parts controlled different shares of the District’s vote, which was weighted by each election district’s Democratic performance.  Since the parts were of different sizes, that impacted the number of votes they controlled.

Further, stronger Democratic areas like the NYCHA projects were advantaged over the areas with somewhat weaker Democratic performance like Battery Park City and Chinatown, (which was also hurt by its large number of non-citizens).

So, the Truman Club had 20.5% of the 2016 weighted County Committee vote, The Lower East Side Dems, now controlled by Cancel and her husband, Democratic State Committee Member and former Labor Leader John Quinn, had 37.4%. The United Dems of Chinatown had 11.9% and the Downtown Independent Dems (DID) had 30.2%

DID was disadvantaged by the fact that both its District Leaders, Paul Newell and Jennifer Rajkumar, were candidates for the open seat. When the club built its slate in 2015, the two Leaders agreed to split their County Committee slots in half between them.

However, Newell, a process junkie, understood weighted voting, and Rajkumar, a white shoe lawyer, did not, resulting in Newell having about three times the weighted voted that she did.

Despite the disparity which resulted, Ms. Rajkumar still loves Paul Newell, but with perhaps slightly less ardor than does Shelly Silver.

The news media also did not understand the weighted vote, and since the reporters preferred talking to people who looked like them and ate in the same places, their narrative reflected that of Newell and Rajkumar’s supporters.

Take the piece Zack Fink wrote for “State of Politics” right after the Governor called the special election.

FINK“That basically gave the interested candidates 8 days to run one of the shortest campaigns in recent memory to succeed Silver who held the seat since 1977.”

FACT: Eight days?!? Newell solicited me for money last April, at that point, Jenifer Rajkumar, had also all but declared.

FINK“The main candidates are Niou who is Chief of Staff to Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim, District Leader Jenifer Rajkumar, Chair of Community Board 3 Gigi Lee, District Leader Paul Newell and Shelly hanger-on Alice Cancel.”

FACT: Alice Cancel may qualify as a Silver hanger on, but she could also accurately be called an employee of the City Comptroller or a former union leader’s wife; more to the point, she’s been a District Leader, probably three times longer than Newell and Rajkumar combined

So, Zack, why is she not entitled to that title?

FINK“This week, insiders began a whisper campaign that Alice Cancel had the most votes from the committee going into tomorrow’s (S)election process in which new votes are taken over and over again until a candidate reaches 50%. But it’s not one committee member one vote (which would make too much sense ). The vote is weighted to favor Committee members who hail from Assembly Districts that had the highest vote turnout for Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2014 ( I’m actually not kidding ).”

FACT: This is stupid in so many ways it’s hard to count.

The reason there is a weighted vote is that County Committee members are elected for every election district, but the districts don’t have even numbers of voters. This is because they are drawn for administrative convenience, so every voter inside the election district lives in close proximity to the polling place and so every voter in the election district shares all the same elected officials and therefore can use the same ballot as every other voter in that district.

So, election district populations vary wildly. Why should an election district encompassing a huge building in Battery Park City or on Grand Street have the same vote as the virtually unpopulated Governor’s Island or an election district composed primarily of warehouses?

Only Zack Fink could explain how this “makes too much sense.”

The reason for using the Cuomo vote–which is actually his vote on the Democratic line only, not on WFP and IP, is because the State Election law uses a party’s vote for Governor to determine a Party’s standing. That is how ballot line positions are determined and ballot status awarded.

Thus, the vote for Governor on the Democratic line is a shorthand measure of how many Democrats live in the election district, thus weighting the vote at the County Committee in roughly the same manner it would be weighted in a Democratic Primary.

Mr. Fink’s “too much sense” proposal would actually make the vote less democratic, not more so.

As Newell later acknowledged to me, the weighted vote was the single most democratic element of the County Committee process.

Also Mr. Fink didn’t seem to grok the difference between an “Assembly District” and an “Election District.” Everyone who ran was from the same “Assembly District” and nothing is weighted to favor one “Assembly District” over the other.

Ironically, what Mr. Fink had tried to label as an effort to fix the process in favor of the regulars was a court mandated measure strongly favored by reformers. In Brooklyn, arch-reformer Chris Owens has long advocated using a weighted vote for all County Committee business and not just nominations.

Fink also missed a really big point about the nomination.

FINK“How anybody could want to deal with Silver’s faction at this point is anybody’s guess, but this is politics after all.”

FACT: Except for Silver’s wife, I’m not aware of any members of the County Committee with whom Silver shared his ill-gotten gains. If Fink has such awareness, he should share it with his readers (and the prosecutors).

Truth is, except for Paul Newell, who thought such effort to be an exercise in futility, EVERYONE sought the votes of Silver’s faction (and even Newell called at least one Truman member thought to be a bit of a loose cannon). Yuh-Line Niuo has even been accused of having breakfast with Shelly (on a parody twitter site widely believed to be linked to Rajkumar).

Judy Rapfogel, Mr. Silver’s former Chief of Staff, pretty much controlled the County Committee votes from the ex-Speaker’s old Grand Street based Harry Truman Club. The view among Silver’s closest cronies was that Virginia Kee, the de facto leader of the United Democrats of Chinatown, had been Silver’s most important, trustworthy, loyal and steadfast ally, and, all things being equal, it was Chinatown’s turn.

They agreed to support Ms. Kee’s choice, although, they were a bit shocked when that choice turned out to be Ms. Niou, a non-Chinatown outsider, newly arrived from Queens (and employed by a Queens Assemblyman) who they hardly knew, rather than their own preference, longtime Chinatown District Leader, Jenny Lam-Low.

As the vote approached, it became clear that the Lower East Side Democratic Club’s District Leader, Alice Cancel, whose candidacy was initially regarded as a holding action, was not backing out of the race. Perhaps Alice would have backed out for Jenny Lam-Low, a longtime colleague, but she was damned certain she wasn’t going to help nominate someone who hadn’t paid their dues.

“Why not me?” was basically the Cancel slogan. And the less seriously her candidacy was taken by others, the more serious she and her husband, State Committeeman and retired Labor Leader John Quinn, got about it.

The problem was that Cancel’s club had the most votes, and her people, who were blood loyal, could not be picked off.

Combined, Shelly’s people and Chinatown could not get a majority without getting most of the votes of the two Reform candidates, the Downtown Independent Democratic Club’s District Leaders, Paul Newell and Jenifer Rajkumar.

Rajkumar had few votes, which meant dealing with Newell.

This was problematic for Rapfogel in two aspects: 1) The Silver folks loathed Newell, who had run against the Speaker, and 2) Newell actually preferred Cancel, who he regarded as a weaker potential opponent in a primary.

Further, Newell also regarded Cancel as an authentic local, rather than an outsider parachuted in by Joe Crowley’s Queens machine, which had had its hand in Chinatown’s politics since the 80s, when it had displaced old mob connected elements of the Brooklyn machine as the major outside force of influence.

Crowley was quietly, but firmly, backing Niou.

Whatever one can say about Judy Rapfogel (and my personal experiences have not usually been pleasant ones) she can do math. Perhaps she would have tried to do a deal with Newell to help Jenny Lam-Low (although if Lam-Low had been the UDO candidate, it might not have been necessary), but she was not going to forfeit her pride to try help someone she hardly knew, especially when it seemed unlikely to work.

Given a choice of letting Newell be the Cancel kingmaker on a later ballot, or doing so herself on ballot number one, and thereby proving that she was still relevant, Rapfogel switched sides.

About two hours before the vote, Rapfogel moved nearly all the Truman Club’s votes (minus a few recalcetrants) from Niou to Cancel, a usually (but not invariably) reliable ally (although Cancel opposed Shelly’s deeply-held position on the Seward Park Urban Renewal District), with whom she maintained a working relationship which was more business-like than warm.

This put Cancel over the top.

Over the top also describes the response of Niou, who upon learning the fight would not be fixed for her, dropped out of contention for the nomination saying “I am withdrawing from this flawed processI am withdrawing from this flawed process,”  which she had been just fine with two hours before.

She added she was looking “forward to sharing my vision for Downtown… with all those who have no voice here”

Niou, the Silver faction’s candidate until right before the vote, is now running on the Working Families line as the anti-boss candidate.

This is laugh-out loud funny.

The Democratic Party selection process may not have been all that democratic, but it was at least both open and pluralistic, and the chaos which ensued showed the result was not pre-ordained.

By contrast, the WFP nominating process resembled the 1919 World’s Series.

Newell was the choice of the local Working Families chapter, but their democratic vote they took in his favor was overriden by the State Party bosses in a closed door meeting, after Joe Crowley, the UFT and other power brokers apparently told them that either their signature or their brains were going to be on the Wilson-Pakula for Niou.

Apparently, that was an “unflawed process” which gave boss to those with “no voice” (with the possible exception of WFP’s actual membership).

So, in a chaotic process, the Dem party bosses chose Alice Cancel.

The election has since verged into absurdity.

Crowley and the WFP have pressured nearly the entire Democratic establishment, including Cancel’s employer, Scott Stringer, and the Assembly leadership, to either openly support Niou or take a dive. They have been joined by nearly every usual Albany suspect and special interest, in funneling cash to Niou’s crusade for “progressive” change and “reform” purity.

Meanwhile, Cancel’s had a bout of bad health, possibly having gotten ill from the clusterfuck she’s endured from being branded a criminal in literature paid for by nearly every Albany bagman.

Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically, most of the local “reformers” and “progressives,” including DID, Newell, Rajkumar, Councilwoman Rosie Mendez and former Councilwoman

Margarita Lopez, are now either openly or not so openly backing Cancel.

As one DIDer told me “I’ll take a Manhattan Machine Hack who knows my neighborhood and its problems over a Queens Machine Hack who doesn’t any day of the week, especially Tuesday.” 

In other words, Niou, the NY Times’ and Zack Finks’s idea of “progressive reformer” is in reality the candidate of every element that made Shelly Silver’s Albany the brothel it is today, while the supposed “evil Silver apologist,” Alice Cancel, is supported by nearly every local who’s spent their life fighting Shelly Silver.

In a normal, low turnout, Special Election, I’d bet on Niou, but this is not a normal Special Election.

This Special Election takes place during a heavily contested Presidential primary which will include the participation of thousands of low information, nationally centered, voters who couldn’t care less about local politics, for whom Alice Cancel’s name on the Democratic line will be like free advertising.

Despite her relatively lame campaign, Alice Cancel may very well win this race.    

I have to disclose that I used to work with Alice and that her husband, John Quinn, was a very good friend to me, without my asking, during a time in my life when I needed a few good friends. This, in spite of my ability to regularly flair up his Sonny Corleone- like temper.

I like both John and Alice, but I also know Alice’s capabilities and modus operandi well enough that my preferred candidate in the fall primary is Paul Newell, a smart and politically courageous young man of great foresight, who won me over, in spite of my initial skepticism, to the point where I even wrote a check to him, after he spent the evening sitting at my kitchen table drinking bourbon and eating dumplings with us, while he was chatting with Domestic Partner in Yiddish.

But Newell won’t be on the ballot until the September primary, so the question is what to do now.

Since the budget is done, the only impact this election can have is to give a candidate selected by one or another Party’s boss-controlled selection process a leg up in the September Democratic primary when the actual voters will finally get a chance to make their choice.

Under those circumstances, a vote for Yuh-Line Niou is a vote to let the bosses to have their thumb on that scale and a vote for Alice Cancel is a vote to punt now and have a fair fight later.

Yuh-Line Niou is an over-entitled outsider who married money and now has the best supporters that money can buy.

Perhaps it is Chinatown’s turn, but Ms. Niou has less to do with Chinatown than either I, Alice Cancel or Paul Newell. This may best be pointed out by this revealing portion of the Times’ Editorial supporting her:

“Her fluent Mandarin would serve her well in Chinatown”

The Times knows nothing about Chinatown.

The predominant Chinese dialects spoken in Chinatown are Cantonese and Fukinese. Mandarin speakers at events in Chinatown usually have to use an interpreter to be understood.

In fact, if you hear Mandarin spoken in Chinatown, it means you’ve probably encountered a rich person doing business there who lives in Little Neck or Forest Hills (like banker and Congressional hopeful Youngman Lee, running against Nydia Velazquez) or the Upper West Side or Battery Park City (like Ms. Niou, who works in Queens and lived there until two years ago).

Alice Cancel is a relatively poor girl from the projects who managed in 60 or so years to move up to a Mitchell-Lama and whose husband made his living organizing janitors.

Alice is no Doctor of Political Science, although the last one I know of who served in the legislature was Alan Hevesi, so perhaps that’s an overrated credential. But she’s no dummy either, and she has street smarts that stand up pretty damn well.

Moreover, Alice Cancel is a truly decent person, with her heart in the right place, who’s been active in efforts to better her community. .

Yes, the voters here can do better, but they will have to wait for that opportunity; they really can’t do any better now.

Most importantly, Alice Cancel probably can’t win a real primary and will likely not run in September. As such, she offers voters the chance for a placeholder pending an actual primary where the people will choose the Democratic candidate, rather than the bosses.

By contrast, a vote for Ms. Niou offer voters a parachuted-in outsider imposed by the bosses from Queens and the Working Families Party who, once elected, will be tough to displace.

Under these circumstances a Vote for CANCEL is a vote for a real election, and I urge voters to choose her.


  • Larry Littlefield

    Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

    Because the real story is that our state legislators are generally chose by a limited number of players in special elections in which most voters are not paying attention, and then they reign as incumbents by pandering to already privileged special interests until they are indicted and convicted.

    And what they are usually convicted off is petty vice compared with the damage they do to people’s live when they aren’t paying attention.

    That story could have been told any time. But no one was paying attention.

    Because by the standards of state legislators Silver was a celebrity, and the selection of his replacement was news, Fink and the New York Times Editorial Board chose to tell the story now. It is a political choice, one those in politics could appreciate.

    Kind of like all the “controversy” I’m suddenly hearing about with regard to transvestites and polygamists, now that it’s a Presidential election year.

  • Sheri Clemons

    This is the first article which has cut through all the nonsense of this election, with great clarity. Thank you for such a great read.